Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Music Lists: 2007

I'm going to be blogging only very infrequently over the next 2 weeks, so I might as well indulge in a bit of list-making before I take a vacation. So here's some comments on music that grabbed my attention in the past year...

5 Pleasant Surprises

5. Mika - Life in Cartoon Motion
'Grace Kelly' is pure joy; the rest of the album is almost as fun, but it's also entirely vacuous. That's why it's a 'pleasant surprise' and not in the 'favorite/best' list.
4. Kelly Clarkson - My December
If 'Irvine' is any indication of what she's capable of, I could actually start buying Kelly Clarkson albums. This album makes this list on that one, Radiohead-ripping song alone.
3. Rihanna - Good Girl Gone Bad
Likewise, this album could have been 10 tracks, all 'Umbrella', and it would be here for that reason alone.
2. Spiral Beach - Ball
Teenagers have no business writing a song like 'Kind of Beast'. Or the rest of this album.
1. Bruce Springsteen - Magic
'Radio Nowhere' could've been written by The Boss in the 70s. Springsteen gets his teeth back.

9 Disappointments

9. Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
To be fair, almost anything was going to be a disappointment.
8. Kevin Drew - Spirit If...
The 'Broken Social Scene Presents' title should have clued me in: it's a Broken Social Scene album, only not as good.
7. Klaxons - Myths of the Near Future
The first song is catchy; the rest of the album is exhaustingly just more of the same, track after track.
6. Dragonette - Galore
There are three songs that I really love on this album; the rest belong on really bad pop radio.
5. Stars - In Our Bedroom After the War
How can an album whose title references both sex and war be filled with such dreadfully middling AOR MOR?
4. Editors - An End Has a Start
I was so bored that I cleared all but two songs off of my iTunes.
3. Paul McCartney - Memory Almost Full
McCartney has released consistently good-to-great solo material for over a decade, now. I suppose the time was ripe for a snoozer.
2. Timbaland Presents: Shock Value
How is it that someone so good at doing material for other people's albums can put out such an awful album himself?
1. The New Pornographers - Challengers
I love the title-track, but didn't the New Pornographers used to be, like, a rock - or, at the very least, pop-rock - band? Nearly every song here is an aimless sort of mid-tempo indie-folk number. Which would be forgivable, I suppose, if it weren't so boring.

9 Favorites
(It's far easier for me to describe my disdain than it is to explain why I like the music that I like, so I'll just include my favorite songs from each album.)

9. Radiohead - In Rainbows
'Bodysnatchers', 'Nude'
8. Los Campesinos! - Sticking Fingers Into Sockets
'We Throw Parties, You Throw Knives', 'You! Me! Dancing!'
7. Caribou - Andorra
'After Hours', 'Sandy'
6. Black Kids - Wizard of Ahhhs
'I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You', 'Hurricane Jane'
5. Arcade Fire - Neon Bible
'Keep the Car Running', 'Ocean of Noise'
4. Iron & Wine - The Shepherd's Dog
'Resurrection Fern', 'Wolves'
3. Feist - The Reminder
'My Moon My Man', '1234'
2. Of Montreal - Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?
'Suffer for Fashion', 'Gronlandic Edit', 'She's a Rejector'
1. LCD Soundsystem - Sound of Silver
'North American Scum', 'All My Friends', 'Someone Great'

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Juno and (un)deserved endings

We watched 'Juno' yesterday - I enjoyed it and laughed embarrassingly in at least a dozen places, but there was one nagging little problem that I only figured out when I got home.

The story is largely divided into two parts: Juno and friend/boyfriend Paulie (and school) and Juno and the adoptive parents of her baby, Vanessa and Mark. The former scenes are overly witty and sardonic - not unlike Knocked Up or Superbad if they had been directed by Wes Andersen, I suppose. The latter part is still clever and snide, but it's heavier and tinged with an anxiety and cynicism that's much more recognizably adult and is entirely absent in the other scenes. Juno (and, too a much smaller extent, her dad) is the only common element.

When the movie ends, each half seems to rely on the other to bail it out: Vanessa and Mark's story ends well in advance of the film's conclusion, which saves us from dwelling on its tragedy, and Juno and Paulie's relationship takes on a sudden emotional weight that seems to have been produced almost entirely by an implicit comparison to Mark and Vanessa's relationship. (This comparison is made by Juno, of course, so as ensure that the viewers aren't entirely responsible for figuring out why the Juno-Paulie situation has a sudden dramatic weight.) And it feels, to some degree, like that weight is unearned. And maybe it is... but, despite myself, I find that the figurative move still seems to work in the end because of Juno. (And Ellen Page, of course, for showing some ridiculous range.) The whole genre exercise that Juno's school friends and family are taking part in may not deserve the emotionally weighty ending, but Juno herself does - and that's enough.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Follow-up: The baseball race game

Note: The baseball race game probably doesn't make a lot of sense unless you read my previous post. So go and do that first.

I quickly compiled a group of eight ostensibly black all-star baseball players. Without cheating by attempting to Google names or teams or what have you, can you tell me which four players are - within the race logic that C.C. Sabathia described below - black and which four are not? No trick questions - four are American born-and-raised and four are originally from the Caribbean. (I removed the logos from their hats to take away that potential clue, but I've otherwise left the original pictures untouched.)

After you've made your guesses, click on the comments to find the answers...

Baseball's C.C. Sabathia on black and black-but-not-black

Back in March, Cleveland Indians pitcher C.C. Sabathia made a big deal of lamenting the lack of African American players in professional baseball. ESPN and others picked up on it, in part because Sabathia was very deliberately trying to draw attention to the North Vallejo Little League that he sponsors, as well as the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities and Urban Youth Academy programs, which are aimed at young black American boys. Explains Sabathia: "I want to show them. I came from there. These are the fields I played on. There is a way out, and it could be baseball."

But the issue is a slippery one, and there are major problems with the discussion in the way that Sabathia and ESPN framed and continue to frame it. They use African American and black interchangeably and synonymously; so not only are all African Americans black, but it seems that all blacks are African American. Having set a sort of syllogism thusly, Sabathia seems to reach the conclusion that ballplayers of African descent but who are not American (ie. black Hispanic players from the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela, etc.) are not black, and begins to problematically demarcate the difference between black and, I suppose, black-but-not-really-black.

To this point, Sabathia makes some interesting references to sight and the visibility of black (and black-but-not-black) ballplayers, and I want to quickly tease out how complex they are. He suggests that it's important that black bodies be visible on the field, since, he suggests, black American kids aren't playing because they don't see themselves represented:

"They don't see us playing," Sabathia said. "When I grew up, I was a pitcher and I liked the Oakland A's. I liked Dave Stewart. I was a big left-handed hitter, so I liked Dave Parker. You had Barry Bonds playing in San Francisco, guys like that. There were a lot of guys to look up to."

This is all well and good, except that the number of black bodies is actually increasing - it's just that those bodies are, within Sabathia's logic, black-but-not-black. But for Sabathia, this is a problem - these bodies are misrecognized/mistaken by kids for black bodies. So even if kids do appear to see themselves represented, it isn't actually bringing them to the game because it's a false recognition:

"I don't think people understand that there is a problem. They see players like Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado and just assume that they're black."

How black American kids intuit that Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado aren't actually 'black', I don't know. For Sabathia's logic to work, we have to assume that something about Reyes' and Delgado's inauthenticity explains how they fail to attract African Americans to play ball, that the misrecognition at work is either eventually defeated or is itself self-defeating. It's a very white project, though, to participate in this sort of game aimed at drawing a line between those inside and those outside of a well-defined category of the proper citizen, or proper player. It's obviously xenophobic, yes, but I suppose that it seems somehow less obviously racist when this sort of disturbing nationalist rhetoric comes out of a black man's mouth.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Because we haven't had any Islamaphobic panic in a while...

There's nothing quite like a domestic abuse tragedy to work the media into a frothing imminent-religious-war frenzy. A 16 year-old girl in Mississauga (a suburb of Toronto) was killed by her dad on Monday - what makes this story such big news, though, is that it their family was "devoutly" Muslim and the girl had, against her family's wishes, stopped wearing her hijab and started dressing like her non-Muslim friends. The quotes and commentary from the article that's on the Toronto Star site is predictable and problematic:

*She wanted to be "free" and independent of her family's devout Muslim beliefs. But that was a problem.

*"Her dad wanted her to be a person who followed the religion. But she wanted to follow her own rules, wear her own clothes."

*Wendy Horton, executive director of Etobicoke's Youth Without Shelter, said that while she's shocked by the level of violence in this situation, she isn't surprised by its root cause. Parents who want their children to remain faithful to old world ways are often at odds with kids growing up in Western society.

*"She wanted to show her beauty but her dad wouldn't let her."

This sort've stuff is also common in the network TV reports - Global TV was calling the murder an instance of "culture clash" and reported that the girl just wanted to "be herself". The Globe and Mail's article, at least, offers some another perspective, differentiating between the domestic abuse and the Islamophobia that it's inspired:

*Across Canada, the killing has taken on larger proportions. On call-in shows and websites, many have used the incident as part of a wider indictment of fundamentalist Islam. One Canadian conservative blogger suggested Canadians boycott taxicabs driven by Muslims. In a statement Tuesday, the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations called on Canadians of all faiths to address issues of domestic abuse, and called for “the strongest possible prosecution” of those responsible for Ms. Parvez's killing.

The point they're driving at, if only implicitly by way of the CCAIR quote, is that this isn't an Islam v. West/Christian thing. There are domineering parents of every faith and abusers can find any reason to hurt or kill their family. I'm completely intolerant of fundamentalism, but the problem here is that our attention is being drawn to a particular kind of fundamentalism, which manages to simultaneously absolve other fundamentalisms of fault and excuse their abusers as somehow lesser. (At least they don't kill you, right? And if they did, at least it would be, it seems, for a better reason!)

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

While I was marking...

I had the Beatles Anthology DVDs playing in the background while I marked today, though I would occasionally look up when they played some archival concert footage. I noticed that the clip from Sweden just seemed...wrong. I started tapping out the beat on the table with my hand and realized that what was bothering me was how the audience was clapping on the beat. (That is, on the first and third beats of a four beat bar of music. Don't ask me to explain what actually means - I can't, for the life of me, tell you.) I can recall reading numerous times that white pop music audiences always clapped on-beat until bands like the Beatles and Stones started appropriating jazz and blues music, but I've never really understood how it is people ever found the on-beat. I tried imitating it and lost it within seconds every time.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Thoughts on some other comics I recently bought...

Buffy: Season 8 #9 - Count me among the people for whom this thing is just 'meh'. I don't really get why 'No Future For You' necessitated 4 issues when it seems like, at most, a two-parter. But my problem is mostly that it's a retread: Faith has to have a crisis of 'faith' in Buffy and her own self-worth, which was already done to death in the TV shows and doesn't do much of anything new for us. Her new status quo with Giles seems somewhat interesting (though I don't totally get the necessity of operating out of Buffy's reach), but I could have just as easily done without the story that led to it. (It fits into the big bad's plan, of course, as explained at the issue's close, it seems to me that the story should still manage to stand on its own.)

The Umbrella Academy #3 - I bought the first two issues a week before this issue was released. Had I written about those, my comments would've been positively glowing. As it is, this issue is more perfunctory - the characters have been introduced and their rather odd relationships established, so this is the first big-battle issue where we get to see that the anti-hero really is a hero, that the sister who betrayed them really does care, etc. These clichés aside, the first two issues - featuring such quirks as the gorilla-body transplant, the 60-year old time-traveler in a 10 year-old's body, the orchestra whose symphony will end the world - have earned plenty of goodwill. And Ba is always incredibly, especially when he cranks up the Mignola-ness to an appropriate level.

There's a Law of Diminishing Returns joke in here, somewhere

I don't think I'm prone to hyperbole, so don't think I'm being rash when I say that Ultimates 3 #1 was the worst comic I've read all year. It's maybe even the worst I've read in the last couple years.

It takes a particularly awful comic to activate my continuity-geekism. (For those non-comic, theory-friendly friends of mine, continuity geeks are my abject.) For instance: Thor's hammer uses the mainstream universe design, not the Ultimate universe one; Thor's dialect is similarly wrong; the Wasp has changed races (!?). As well, the military-style uniforms have been abandoned for superhero costumes without explanation, which signals a far more troubling shift - Millar's Ultimates might have lacked subtlety, but he aimed for a certain verisimilitude that is lacking in the mainstream Marvel world and his stories were driven by their political texts and subtexts. In failing to ground Ultimates 3 in this way, Loeb has somehow managed to entirely miss what made the Ultimates something other than the Avengers.

Need more examples of its awfulness? Well, we're introduced to a villain (Venom) who lacks any character or motivation, and who spends most of his screen-time battling a new Ultimate (Black Panther) who isn't even given a line of dialogue. Why is he even there? Don't know. Sensing that the story is just awful, I guess, the Wasp delivers a particularly painful recap of what's happened between Ultimates 2 and 3, which serves only to remind us why the 'Previously in...' pages that usually appear at the beginning of these books were such a good idea. Madureira's art is, I suspect, quite spectacular - but it's hard to find under a ridiculously dense wash of digital-paint that muddies his lines. Why Marvel would want to obscure Madureira's strengths like this, I don't know - I can't think of anyone in their right mind who would try so hard to ruin the one thing this comic has going for it.

But I don't know why they let such an unrepentant piece of shit like this go to print in the first place, either. If anyone recommends this thing to you, never ask them for reading advice again. In fact, you should probably stop talking to them altogether.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The hysterical Joker: Batman is a hobo?

Wow. I shouldn't be surprised any more, but it seems that every Joker picture for this new movie is worse than the pictures that preceded it. The same complaints apply, so I won't aim to repeat myself: if you want to read my old objections, you can find them here.

What's funny, though, is that I was only just complaining about where they've gone wrong with this interpretation of the Joker to someone last night. I noted that one of my favorite interpretations of the Joker is as a sort of hyper-hysteric - sort of what Morrison attempted in Arkham Asylum, though perhaps not so literally. Think of it this way: The Joker's personality is less a declaration - "I'm really crazy!" - and more a question in the form of a demand - "I'm really crazy: tell me who I am!" That he's presented in the comics as a flamboyant, arbitrarily homicidal, and fantastically neurotic crime boss is meant to say more about Batman than the Joker, as such - that hysterical demand is made of Batman, in particular, and so the Joker reflects (and inverts) the crime-fighting Batman's own neuroses, disciplined violence, and repression.

Given that Heath Ledger's Joker looks like something of a tramp or an out-of-work clown, I can only guess that Christian Bale's Batman will be a hobo-detective. Maybe he'll trade in his utility belt for a bindle?

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Fyi, for people studying comics in and around the Toronto area...

Two notes on 'Lars and the Real Girl'

I always appreciate it when a film that loosely models itself on the familiar structures of the rom-com or family melodrama genres. Convention suggests that there should be a scene where someone decides to embarrass or humiliate Lars by pointing out that he's crazy/perverted for thinking that Bianca, his real doll, is a real human being, and Lars should deny that it's true, but suffer a breakdown of some sort because he knows that it is. (Similar to any one of those movies premised on the main character having a secret that is revealed by the antagonist before the protagonist can reveal it/come to terms with it himself.) Thankfully, Lars and the Real Girl teases at this potential swerve on very briefly - and in a totally convincing way - and never revisits the cliché again.

The film also has an atypical take on Lars' "delusions", though I'm less certain of how that take makes me feel. While it's suggested that Lars' creation of Bianca is connected to his father's recent death and his sister-in-law's pregnancy, there is no simple and obvious causation - the moments in which his delusion start and stop don't correspond in any direct fashion. It's also never presented as a pathological condition, aside from it being labeled a delusion; it's simply how Lars' mind has chosen to deal with its depression. Conversely, I'm sure that it'll earn the ire of certain mental health profession: Lars' delusions are presented as something that can be overcome with love and patience, and the condition is one that Lars himself can overcome if he so chooses. It's not that simple, of course, but it appears impossible to undertake the one - presenting the delusions as part of a normal process of coping - without eliding the other - that is, medicalizing and medicating the ostensible illness. But this is a debate for people who are far more versed in the nuances of the discussion to undertake.